“He is a purist,” we are told.
“He learned his technique by studying in Italy,” speculates another.
“He is more of an artist,” says a third.
Experts and amateurs alike rain encomiums on David Silva. He has been called a consummate sculptor, a master of technique, perhaps the finest artist the field of depilation has ever known.
“The beard is the natural suit that every man wears,” the 29-year-old intones calmly, almost lovingly. We receive this while supine in his chair at Traci-Scott Salon on West Gray, grateful for the chance to pay $55 for an old-school shaving experience known as The Brit. “It’s a very personal item that differs in so many ways.”
Over the next hour, Silva will give us what can only be described as a combination spa treatment, massage, and intensely relaxing whisker-cutting, one that is rooted in an age-old masculine craft he believes has been largely lost, thanks to our mad, frenetic, busy-yet-aimless modern lives.
“During your week,” Silva asks, “how often are you pausing, sitting down, and allowing yourself to feel well?” We do not know what “feels well” feels like, not to mention how we would allow this to happen. We just shake our head. “Amidst the daily grind, especially in a booming town like Houston, there’s always another case or project or deadline.” Yes. “I think we’re losing our ability to take a breath and just be.”
Though you’d never guess it, Silva is something of an accidental virtuoso of the visage. As recently as 2009, the native Houstonian was studying business administration at the American University in Rome. But during his final year he began getting his hair cut by a barber in his inner-city Roman neighborhood by the name of Mario Grasso. Like many Italian barbers, Grasso, a jovial middle-aged man from Sicily, ran his studio alone and swore off electric tools, relying solely on his hands and scissors. In this way, he proved himself an artisan, a craftsman married to an ancient craft, and—perhaps most importantly—not subject to the limitations of the Italian power grid. As soon as he sat in Grasso’s chair, Silva sensed that he was in for a life-changing experience, a makeover that would go far beyond his ’do.
“He was always in motion—glancing, looking, moving, rotating, almost like a fluid boxer or a dancer,” Silva fondly recalls. “It was if he had a 360 view of my head even if he was working one side.”
As if that weren’t enough, Grasso typically performed all of the above while singing and dancing to the radio and conversing fluidly with his subject. At the end of the cut the two men would chat further over a cup of espresso. Before leaving, the bond between barber and client would often be sealed with a hug goodbye.
“Each person left feeling like a friend, knowing they had that point of reference in the neighborhood,” Silva says. “Being able to say ‘that’s the guy that takes care of my look, that’s the guy that makes me feel refreshed, that’s the guy that knows my head better than I do’—that was the feeling coming out of Mario’s studio.”
It was the sort of feeling that leads a man to announce he is casting aside all thoughts of business administration in favor of barbering. Back stateside, Silva bought a mirror and a pair of scissors, and began offering free haircuts to friends and family while he learned his trade (donations accepted). It quickly became obvious that Silva was something of a pompadour prodigy, and for a while he served a further apprenticeship as an assistant at Traci-Scott. It was only a matter of time, however, before he would go full Grasso and recreate the classic Italian shave for his American clients. Cue more trips to the finest parlors of London, Paris, and Rome.
“In London we found a luxurious and exquisite tradition in the English style,” says Silva, plausibly enough. “In Paris we found the spa experience of the French very aromatic, with lots of subtle, sensual touches. In Rome, it came down to earth and became an old, traditional barbershop experience, very masculine, very warm.”
His mentors’ influences are everywhere evident in Silva’s technique, but it is to the Italian masters that he returns again and again. This spring, after stumbling upon a YouTube video of a Milanese barber at work, Silva was spellbound and booked passage immediately to witness “the best I’ve ever seen.” The barber in question was the great Francesco Cirignotta of Milan, who had apparently not been known as the great Francesco Cirignotta of Milan, judging by the alarm he felt at being tracked down by a rabid internet fan. Still, he quickly recovered, declared that he was honored, and embraced Silva as a mentee.
“We both share a desire to go back to the root of shaving, to practice the craft with the precision that you no longer find,” says Silva. “He’s a mentor, but he’s also a philosopher.”
Cirignotta’s approach to shaving, as revolutionary as it is simple, was to view each new beard as a puzzle, and one whose solution depends on everything from the density and quality of strands of hair (fine vs. thick, curly vs. straight) to the elasticity of a man’s skin. (Beard-cutting, Silva insists, is as much about skin as hair.) As he stares down at us with his artist’s eye, we suddenly feel like Mona Lisa being inspected by Leonardo, Whistler’s mother posing for her son, a water lily looking up at Monet. More to the point, we are, announces the artist, an “eight or nine out of ten” in terms of beard density. Leaping into action, Silva begins by transferring moist heat to the skin and trapping it there with a series of hot towels, hair-softening elixirs, and a cream applied with a brush made out of badger hair.
The actual shaving commences. Silva’s razor dances across our face in tiny, precise strokes, constantly changing directions. Allow too many hairs to touch the blade, and it can throw off the angle, he says, going against the beard’s natural grain and creating razor burn. Still, after an hour-long session that includes an arm and hand massage, our face is smooth and burn-less. The experience will stick with us long into the future, or at least until tomorrow morning’s stubble.